7 Fun Thanksgiving Activities for Elementary Students

A turkey made out of leaves. A no-bake pumpkin pie. A look at the native land you live on. We've put a twist on traditional Thanksgiving activities and lesson plan ideas for elementary students.

Have your students try one or more of our hands-on projects and activities to celebrate the holiday while boosting their math, reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills. Of course, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving if we didn't take time out to show our gratitude. At HMH, we're thankful for all of the educators who work hard every day to shape students' lives.

Thanksgiving Lesson Plan Ideas and Activities

No hand-traced turkeys here! Try these fun Thanksgiving activities with your elementary students. The best part? They can all be tackled in person or remotely.

1. Word Play

What’s a turkey’s favorite dessert? Challenge students to unscramble the Thanksgiving-related words in our Word Scramble to get the punch line. To extend the activity, have students write a silly or serious story using every word in the jumble. You might also start a class discussion about the words. Ask: Do these words reflect your family’s Thanksgiving traditions? What words would you keep, delete, or add? Finally, students can continue the word play by creating their own word jumble with a different theme. Some themes they might choose: autumn, harvest, or fall sports.

2. Learn Native Lands

Before Europeans arrived in North America, it is estimated that more than 50 million people already lived there. There were once tribal lands (and still are) where there are now states, cities, and houses. Where a tribe was located—the plains, the plateau, or the subarctic—determined how the tribe lived, hunted, and traveled.

Even though the Native American population stands at closer to 4.5 million today, those native lands remain, and should be respected and understood, especially in context with Thanksgiving. You can find out which native land your school is on at native-land.ca by searching for your zip code and reviewing the history of that tribe. How did they live, what did they eat, and what stories did they tell?

3. Build a Turkey

A classic classroom Thanksgiving craft is, of course, the hand-traced turkey, with each finger colored in and the thumb as the bird’s head. If you feel like changing it up this year, try building a turkey tail from fallen leaves.

What you will need:

  • 2 pieces of paper
  • Scissors
  • Scotch tape or liquid glue
  • Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
  • 1 heavy book
  • A handful of dried leaves

Step 1: Collecting the Leaves

Have students go outside and collect the colorful leaves that have fallen from the trees in your area. Once they have collected the leaves, make sure that they are dry, then spread them out and place something heavy (like a book) on top of them to flatten out their curls. A quick lesson on the difference between deciduous and evergreen trees may also be incorporated into this step.

Step 2: Coloring the Body

While the leaves are flattening, have the kids cut a turkey body out of paper by folding a paper in half, then cutting two connected half circles from the paper. The result, once the paper is unfolded, should look like a small snowman. (See the step-by-step pictures below.) Now have kids color in the body and add a beak and eyes to the smaller circle for the face.

Step 3: Build a Turkey

Once their turkeys are complete, collect the flattened leaves, and arrange them in a fan on a piece of paper. Attach the leaves to the paper with either Scotch tape at the stem or with liquid glue. If your students are learning remotely this year, have parents assist with this step. The turkey body may also be secured by rolling tape into circles and pressing down over the bottom of the leaf fan. Placing a book over the final product to flatten it more will help keep any glue in place.

4. Volunteer Virtually

The pandemic will make the holidays especially poignant, since many people have lost jobs, not to mention loved ones. You and your students can help by lending a hand or spreading cheer to those in need. Students may not be able to visit with elderly neighbors, but they can make a phone call or do a video chat. They might also leave a card or letter in an elderly neighbor’s mailbox, or do yard work or other outdoor chores for them. And while students may not be able to volunteer in person at soup kitchens, they could round up canned goods to donate. Check out a list of more virtual volunteering ideas that kids can do during the pandemic.

5. Break With Tradition

The great thing about a tradition is that anyone can start one! We may be used to thinking that the perfect Thanksgiving dinner has turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, but not everyone may want these foods on their table at holiday time.

Have your students invent their dream meal—the perfect Thanksgiving dinner without any of the expectation for what the holiday should be. But tell them that they'll have to write a paragraph explaining why the meal they dream up would make a good yearly tradition. Maybe their table has no yams on it, or maybe they want to scrap the green bean casserole. Maybe they are a vegetarian and would rather have a cheese pizza as a centerpiece rather than a turkey. Maybe they aren't vegetarian and would prefer a pepperoni pizza. Whether your students want to feature burritos, kimchi, spaghetti, or skip dinner entirely and have an ice cream bar instead, you’re sure to get some interesting new traditions.

6. No-Bake Pumpkin Pie

Reading recipes is a fun way for students to follow directions and practice math. Tell students they’re going to read a no-bake pumpkin pie recipe. Ask: What ingredients do you think are in the pie? Make a list of student predictions. Then have them check their predictions against the actual list. Get our No-Bake Pumpkin Pie activity sheet with the recipe. Students will answer comprehension questions about the recipe and complete a challenge to double and triple the measurements. Teaching in person? Bring the ingredients to class and have students make the tasty pumpkin treat on their own.

7. Cornucopia Harvest Lesson

One of the classic symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. Usually depicted as a curved, horn-shaped basket overflowing with fall produce, the cornucopia was originally associated with harvest festivals in Europe.

Harvest times around the U.S. vary depending on the climate. Teach your students when to plant and when to harvest crops by consulting The Vegetable Planting Calendar for your state and seeing when would be the best time to fill your cornucopia with all of your favorites. For an added classroom or at-home craft, have the kids create a planting wheel calendar by drawing a circle with six lines running through the diameter and labelling each section with the name of a month. In each "pizza slice," they can draw a vegetable that can be planted during that month in their state.

Share Your Thanksgiving Lesson Plan Ideas

What are your go-to Thanksgiving activities and lesson plan ideas for elementary students? Whether it's an intricate hands-on project, a thought-provoking discussion question, a fun writing prompt, a mini-lesson, or a comprehensive lesson plan, we would love to take a look. And don't hesitate to send us a throwback lesson from your elementary school days! Share your favorites with us on Twitter (@TheTeacherRoom) or Facebook. Our online community of teachers will be thankful you did!

***

Want more Thanksgiving activity ideas for the classroom? Check out 9 Thanksgiving Classroom Activities, Games, and Crafts.

Find more classroom resources and activities on Shaped.

Be the first to read the latest from Shaped.